The politically incorrect language of toys

Posted by Flux on 

11 December 2014


It’s that time of the year when there’s a frantic rush to buy Christmas gifts and buying gifts for children has become a tricky task. Do you buy something educational (which might just backfire as boring), something digital (and risk promoting early digital addiction), or something fun, which in this day and age is inevitably politically incorrect?

Last month in America, Halloween proved to be a bellwether of what is to come for festive season toys. The Ebola crisis spilled over into popular culture and one of the most popular Halloween costumes that flew off the shelves were imitation hazmat suits (aka, hazardous materials suits). In real life, these impermeable, whole-body suits are essential protective equipment worn when working with hazardous materials, or diseases like Ebola.
For Halloween, people not only dressed up as Ebola caregivers, but a few enthusiastic Halloween devotees, cordoned off their homes, decorating them as “contaminated Ebola areas”, complete with biohazard bins and yellow caution tape: an extreme form of art imitating life.

Halloween aside, a whole new “germ-phobe” industry has been spawned in the wake of the Ebola crisis. Clothing specifically designed to counter the spread of germs, in densely populated cities, are now on the market just in time for Christmas. Why gift your loved ones with a traditional scarf, when you can give them the gift of hypochondria?
The Scough is a germ and pollution-filtering face wrap, which provides a fashionable alternative to surgical masks and utilises the same military grade technology used by USA’s Ministry of Defense in chemical warfare. It contains a carbon filter embedded with silver which helps to trap, neutralise and kill viruses before they can be inhaled.

But back to toys: The “trend” in selling hazmat suits had already been gaining ground, thanks to the popular TV series Breaking Bad, and specifically the show’s character, Walter White, a chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine maker. As part of the show’s merchandising, they created the Walter White action doll, complete with bags of cash and crystal meth as accessories. The doll, understandably, was met with outrage from parents, and Toys R Us was forced to remove the dolls from their shelves after one mother, Susan Schrivjer, created an online petition that garnered over 9000 signatures.

Toys are now becoming a politically correct labyrinth to navigate, and it’s not just mothers who protest. Earlier this year the LEGO Movie drew criticism for including a very small minority of female characters prompting a 7-year-old to write to the CEO of Lego, asking the company to “make more Lego girl people and let them go on adventures and have fun ok!?!” The toy company subsequently approved new designs for female scientist, paleontologist and astronomer characters, proving that you’re never too young to be an activist. However, while gender activists might be getting younger, introducing technology to toddlers seems to be the latest toy trend.

A Swedish company is now selling Tinitel: “a wearable, voice-controlled phone for kids that are too young to own a Smartphone”. My question is that if your child is too young for a Smartphone, why give them a phone in another form? Some parents might be convinced because of the safety net it can provide. Described as the “world’s smallest mobile phone” Tinitel has no display and looks like a a piece of wearable tech seen in gyms. Instead, it comes with a microphone, a speaker and SIM card slot, as well as a small processor, which enables it to function as a basic phone. Parents connect it to their smartphone via Bluetooth to load numbers onto it as well as register it with their device. The child can then simply press the button on the Tinitell’s surface and say the name of the person they want to call. They can also receive calls through the device, but only from the numbers loaded by their parents, who can also track the location of their child via their smartphone, as well as see a calling list.

While the Tinitel might spark debate amongst parents, a concept toy called New Born Fame is sure to. New Born Fame is for parents who are social media addicts and are just too happy to get their offspring started whilst still in the cradle. This “interactive plush toy” looks like a traditional mobile, but the soft toys hanging down over the cot, are in fact synched to a variety of social media platforms. If the baby pulls at the small bird, a randomly generated Tweet will be sent out. If the baby pulls the Facebook logo, the baby’s status (and location) is automatically updated. When the camera toy is pulled, the baby will, in essence, take a selfie and upload it to Instagram.

Some parents will find this terribly cute, while others will be horrified. So if you’re buying toys this festive season, tread carefully. Current affairs, gender politics and digital addiction have seeped into the toy stores. The gift of giving has suddenly turned into a moral mindfield.

By: Dion Chang

About Dion

Image credit: Gawker

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